Pentagon knowingly exposed troops to cancer-causing chemicals, document shows
John Byrne
Published: Tuesday March 10, 2009

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A newly leaked military document appears to show the Pentagon knowingly exposed US troops to toxic chemicals that cause cancer, while publicly downplaying the risks exposure might cause.

The document, written by an environmental engineering flight commander in December of 2006 and posted on Wikileaks (PDF) on Tuesday, details the risks posed to US troops in Iraq by burning garbage at a US airbase. It enumerates myriad risks posed by the practice and identifies various carcinogens released by incinerating waste in open-air pits.

Because of the difficulties in testing samples, investigators could not prove that chemicals exceeded military exposure guidelines. But a military document released last December found that chemicals routinely exceeded safe levels by twice to six times.

The leaked report was signed off by the chief for the Air Force's aeromedical services. Its subject is Balad Airbase, a large US military base about 70 kilometers north of Baghdad.

"In my professional opinion, the known carcinogens and respiratory sensitizers released into the atmosphere by the burn pit present both an acute and a chronic health hazard to our troops and the local population," Aeromedical chief Lt. Colonel James Elliott wrote.

According to the document, a US Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine investigator said Balad's burn pit was "the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited," including "10 years working... clean-up for the Army."

While the Curtis memo document is a new release to Wikileaks, it was previously disclosed online by the founder and editor of, Larry Scott, in December 2008.

Military outfits have routinely incinerated garbage in what are called burn pits. At Balad, the trash was hauled by contractors from the engineering giant KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary.

Last December, the Pentagon issued a "Just the Facts" sheet about the burn pits to troops. While acknowledging that lab tests from 2004-2006 had found occasional carcinogens, it asserted that "the potential short- and long-term risks were estimated to be low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals."

The sampling reports are classified, according to the Army Times.

The Pentagon report adds, "Based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance, long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke."

Strikingly, however, it does acknowledge that air samples taken in 2007 found particulate matter levels higher than military recommendations in 50 of 60 cases -- some two times allowable toxic levels, but others as many as six times.

The flyer given to troops appears to contradict assertions by the Air Force's own investigators. In the leaked document, titled "Burn Pit Health Hazards," Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis expressed shock that troops were knowingly exposed to such risks.

"It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years without significant engineering controls being put in place," Curtis wrote.

"In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals," he added. In addition to carcinogens, "there is also the possibility of chronic health hazards associated with the smoke."

Curtis noted that the chemicals associated with burning plastics, rubber and other common trash items included arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, sulfuric acid and various other chemicals.

"Just the Facts," while playing down long-term risks, also identified dioxins among tested samples. Dioxins were also present in Agent Orange, the notorious herbicide used during the Vietnam War. Benzene is known to cause leukemia, and cyanide and arsenic have throughout history been used as poisons to induce death.

Soldiers complain of chronic conditions

An Army Times investigation in 2008 found anecdotal evidence of health conditions caused by exposure to the fires.

"Though military officials say there are no known long-term effects from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 service members have come forward to Military Times and Disabled American Veterans with strikingly similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia," Army Times reporter Kelley Kennedy wrote in December.

"A lot of soldiers in my old unit have asthma and bronchitis," a staff sergeant stationed in Iraq in 2005 was quoted as saying. "I lived 50 feet from the burn pit. I used to wake up in the middle of the night choking on it."

"I've seen four or five cardiologists, but no one can tell me what's wrong with my heart," the staff sergeant added.

"It seems like most of these cases, anecdotally, are people who were exposed heavily to the burn pits and they got sick quickly," Kerry Baker, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said. "There must be some areas that take a hit much harder than others. Everything seems to be pointing opposite to what the Defense Department is saying."

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